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No deal yet on Iraq oil, trade ministers

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, May 9 (Reuters) Iraqi political leaders are still negotiating over who should head the oil and trade ministries in the new, full-term government being formed this week, the prime minister-designate said today.

''There is still discussion about the oil ministry. There is a dispute. It may be finished today. There are also disputes over the trade and transport ministries,'' Nuri al-Maliki told a news conference.

The fate of the ministries, highly significant to efforts to rebuild oil-rich Iraq's shattered economy over the next four years until new elections, is part of broader bargaining among the main ethnic and sectarian factions.

U.S. diplomats, playing a role in the negotiations, have been pushing hard for Maliki to ensure posts to go to competent professionals.

Among the most frequently cited names for the key oil job is Thamir al-Ghadhban, a career oil industry technocrat since the days of Saddam Hussein. A secular Shi'ite, he ran the ministry after the U.S. invasion.

But Iraq's volatile sectarian politics could hurt his chances of being appointed.

Another frontrunner for the job is Shi'ite Muslim nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani who was tortured under Saddam and spent 11 years in prison.

Shahristani, who says he refused an offer to release him from jail if he joined Saddam's nuclear weapons programme, escaped from the Abu Ghraib prison during the 1991 Gulf war.

He spent the next 12 years in exile in London and Iran. His opponents have accused him of being too close to Tehran. A devout man, he has always been close to religious figures.

The soft-spoken Shahristani is famous for his good reputation.

But oil official sources said the oil sector needs a specialist to help it get over the increased problems it is facing and restore exports to a pre-war level.

Iraq's oil sector, crippled by decades of war, sanctions and under-investment, has lurched from one crisis to another since the U.S. invasion of 2003.

Exports dropped to their lowest level since then at 1.1 million barrels per day in December due to sabotage in the north and bad weather in the south combined with logistics problems.

But exports in April rose to about 1.5 million bpd, up from a March average of 1.34 million bpd.

There is no consensus on the trade minister either, negotiators said.

Reuters CH DB2200

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